09 March 2008

It Shouldn't Have To Be So Hard

It really shouldn't have to be so hard to find a decent LCMS congregation. There ought to be one near you, wherever you happen to be in this country. In most cases and places, it doesn't appear to be so hard to find an LCMS congregation in the vicinity, or two or three, at least in name. But whether or not those local congregations are worthy of the name, that is the concern. Whether they be, or not they be, that is the question.

I've got several young friends who are doing the college search thing. Like my own two oldest children, these pious young people have made the availability of a faithful congregation among their top priorities in looking at various schools. That they should do so makes me glad. That they should struggle so in their search makes me mad.

I suppose there will be those who might say that, oh, yes, that snooty Pastor Stuckwisch and his parishioners expect everything to be "just so," and they won't ever be satisfied with anything else. "There's just no pleasing some people." Okay, fine. I have high standards when it comes to the Church and Ministry, to the Christian faith and life. I'll always remember the great response that my dear father in Christ, Dr. Weinrich, once gave to some wiseacre who had asked if he was one of those "high church" guys. He said that, yes, he had a very high view of the Church; for she is, after all, the Bride of Christ, and she ought to be treated like a lady. It is often the case that all the wisdom you need can be summarized just that simply. I hope that none of my colleagues took their own brides out to Burger King on Valentine's Day. Why must some of them insist on escorting the Bride of Christ through a fast-food drive-thru?

Notwithstanding my "high church" elitism, I actually make a point of instilling in my parishioners a great deal of evangelical patience and consideration. I work hard at distinguishing betweeen that which is essential, the real heart of the matter, and that which is secondary, neither commanded nor forbidden. If they have listened to me (as most of them do rather well), they know what to look for, what they can tolerate and what they can live without, and what they ought to avoid. Because they are catechized by the Word and Spirit of God, and because they know the Gospel and their Catechism, the Liturgy (both in its essentials and in its Sunday best), and a real hymn when they sing it, I generally don't have to tell them where to go or what to do. I'll certainly answer if they ask, and I'll advise them out of love and concern. The truth is, I'm more likely to encourage a greater level of tolerance than many of my youth are inclined to give. What can I say? The young people of Emmaus have high standards, and they are not timid about asking for the very best when it comes to the things of Christ. It is especially their hunger for the Gospel that gives me hope for the future of Lutheranism.

There are other things that sometimes give me real hope, as well. For example, I found it so refreshing, this past week, to discuss confession and absolution with brothers in Christ in Ohio, without any of the usual "political" trappings. I wasn't there as a "liberal" or "conservative," but as a brother pastor among pastors. And we weren't discussing strategies or tastes, but the Word of God, the Gospel and the means of grace, pastoral care, and the way in which we can be of help and service to each other and to the people of God entrusted to our stewardship of His Mysteries. By and large, I didn't know these guys from Adam, other than as colleagues and peers within the Office of the Ministry and within the fellowship of the LCMS. I doubt that many of them knew much about me either. It was great. We dealt with substance. We spoke to one another candidly, with charity, with genuine give and take, with the Word of God. I drove home thinking that this is really how it ought to be, all the time. Then we'd maybe get somewhere, and the Gospel would be well-served among us to the glory of God in Christ.

To the point at hand: We dealt with the essentials, the heart of the matter. Maybe we were able to do so because we weren't debating the particulars of the Liturgy and its administration. There was no contention, because there was nothing thrust upon us from out of left field. We prayed a morning office and sang a couple hymns out of the Lutheran Service Book. It wasn't the order of service that I might have chosen, and perhaps they weren't the hymns that I would have picked, but I was pleased to be able to pray with my brothers in confidence and peace. The ceremony of the place was different than that of Emmaus, and the personal piety of the brothers there gathered differed from one man to the next, but none of this was troubling or upsetting. The demeanor and decorum were reverent and attentive to the Word of God, and our respective pieties assisted each of us in receiving that Word in faith, responding in prayer. These are among the benefits of using traditional orders of service and a common corpus of hymnody, which those in church fellowship have agreed upon together for their faith and life.

As I have said before, love can tolerate rather a lot in the freedom of faith, so long as the Gospel is given free course and allowed to have its way among us. I stand by my thesis that, where the preaching is gotten right, everything else will find its proper place in time; or, if not, it still won't matter so much anyway. I am convinced that the Gospel is honored and supported by the use of the traditional orders of service, and clearly confessed by good hymnody, and I believe that such things ought to be used in love for the neighbor. As to the rest of the details, I am honestly content to let such things work themselves out by way of genuine pastoral care within each congregational context. Differences in outward ceremony are not the heart of the matter; they are not necessary; they are not deal-breakers. But do preach the Gospel, and by all means let it predominate. Let everything else be bent into the service of the Gospel, including the ceremony. Don't let anything else be calling the shots or running the show.

If one of my own children, or one of my parishioners (who are in many ways like my own dear children), happen to visit another congregation, the pastor in that place had better be preaching the Gospel to them. Brethren, preach the Gospel for the sake of faith; and for love and pity's sake, use the Church's hymns and orders of service, rather than your own. Beyond that, I trust you to be a good and faithful pastor, and I'm not going to give you grief for not doing this or that. I'll admonish my young people to receive you in the name and stead of Christ, to honor and respect you for the sake of your office, to love you for the Gospel that you give them, and to rejoice in the good gifts that you are privileged to bestow upon them on behalf of Christ Jesus. If you don't do those things; if you neglect the preaching of the Gospel; if you withhold the gifts Christ freely gives, then I will exhort them to go elsewhere, even if they have to drive an hour to get there. It won't have anything to do with chasubles or chanting or genuflecting or elevations; though I do believe that each and all of these things can serve and support the Gospel. But that is really the point: to serve and support the Gospel. Do that in the way you are given and able to do, and everything else is cake and frosting.

If you are asked about pastoral care for one of my young people, please don't respond with what a friendly fellow you are, and please don't attempt to prove how well you relate to the youth. Rather, understand that you are being asked to preach the Gospel, to catechize your people with the Word of God, to hear their confession and grant them Absolution in order to fulfill God's will. Visit them when they are sick. Counsel them with the Holy Scriptures and the Catechism. Serve them with the means of grace. Comfort them with the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Give them the Body and Blood of Christ. They have buddies of their own. You may befriend them, too, but what they really need is a pastor, a shepherd who is constrained by his office to guard and keep and feed the flock.

Above all, preach the Word of God. It is helpful and important to use the Church's rites and ceremonies. But it is absolutely necessary that what you speak be the Word of God, and not your own wit and wisdom. Please do not lecture my parishioner, nor any of your own, on how to be a better him or her, on how to grow a garden or ride a bike, on how to shop responsibly, or how to save the whales. If you want to write self-help books, do it on your own time. Do not profane the Lord's pulpit with trivialities. If you aren't a great preacher, work at it; get better; and for the time being, at least talk about Jesus. And if one of my dear sheep asks you for the Gospel, for the Cross and Resurrection, for the forgiveness of sins, just do it; don't make excuses. Give thanks to God for such wisdom from out of the mouths of babes, who know what to ask for and won't settle for anything less than Jesus.

"Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. But if anyone does not sumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well" (James 3:1-2).

It shouldn't have to be so hard to find a decent LCMS congregation. It ought to be as simple as looking one up in the Lutheran Annual. There's always going to be local flavor and differences in personality, but there are some things that one should be able to count on; not just for the sake of "comfort" and "convenience," which are ultimately incidental, but for the sake of the Gospel.


sarahlaughed said...


Fr John W Fenton said...

That such an issue needs to be raised is both a shame and a shameful indictment. Mind you, I'm not with those who say, "It was never this way before in the LCMS." However, I am with those who say, "It was never this bad."

(If my intrusion is out of line, please forgive and delete.)

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

It's no intrusion, Fr. Fenton. Neither is it inappropriate, nor unwelcome. I'm always pleased to hear from you, and to have your input.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

(deleted and resubmitted to fix formatting)

While I don't change churches that often, for my business travels I have visited a lot of churches. Sad to say, you're absolutely correct.

I thought I had posted my method for choosing a church in an area, but it seems I just have it in an email:

When I go on the road, I go to the LCMS web site and look up the churches in an area. I know full well not all LCMS churches are the same, so let me share with you some ways I will find which church I'll visit that Sunday:

* What kind of worship do they do? Good words: "Divine Service", "Liturgical". Warning signs: "Joyful Praise", "Contemporary Worship", "Blended Worship".

* Topics of Bible Studies.  The best studies study books of the Bible. Decent studies teach Christian doctrine.  Bad studies come from Intervarsity Press.

* Do they offer midweek services? Matins? Vespers? Sometimes I don't get to church on Sunday morning because I'm teaching.

* Are they Ablaze!(TM)(points for No)

* Size of congregation as a tie-breaker.  Larger congregations tend to be less predictable in their orthodoxy. The one I visit in Houston, Memorial Lutheran Church, is a wonderful exception.

sarahlaughed said...

Pastor, do you mind if I send this to someone?

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Truth Questioner, you are certainly welcome to share any of my blog posts with others. They are a matter of "public" record, so to speak.

The easiest way to share a blog post is simply to point someone to the link. However, you are also welcome to cut and past, if you like. Either way is fine.

Kristi Heinz said...

I read your blog faithfully, but often keep my comments to myself. I felt the need to post this time.

Thank you for this post. How true and wise all of it is! I always feel this way about your posts by the way.

I too wish it weren't so difficult. And, I wish others found it as important! Is it that difficult to preach the gospel?

Anan said...

Dan: As far as the term "Divine Service" goes... even that can get mixed up. Such as using the Devine Service and omitting the Service of Communion. In such a case it is still called a "Divine Service" because that's what it says at the top of the page in the hymnal...

sarahlaughed said...

Not to go off on a tangent, but Anan raises an interesting question: Is the service still "Divine Service" without the Sacrament?

God is still "doing" the serving, even without the eucharist, isn't He? But what relationship does communion have to the name "Divine Service"?

sam said...

In my opinion (and I believe I'm backed up by church history) the term "Divine Service" has been used to refer to Sunday morning services, where the Lord's Supper was always celebrated. It is a modern invention to have Sunday morning services with no celebration of the Sacrament.

Non-communion services (Matins and Vespers are the best example) have been referred to in history as the "Daily Offices" or simply "The Offices."

Debbie Theiss said...

It is shame when we can't count on it being the same from week to week in our own church, much less in a church down the street..."High Church", bring it on!

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

I appreciate all of the comments, and I'm sorry that I haven't been able to keep up with responding.

Rough 'n' Ready Dan, I resonate to your frustrations and your general rules of thumb in finding decent LCMS congregations on the road. I tend to agree with most all of your criteria, to one degree or another. Of course, it is one thing to be looking for a church to attend while traveling or on vacation; quite another to be trying to find a congregation to make your "home-away-from-home" while going to college over the course of several years or more. In such circumstances, I think there does need to be a certain level of patience, and a willingness to tolerate what may be less than ideal, so long as the Gospel is preached faithfully and the Sacrament administered reverently in accord with the Word of Christ our Lord.

Bottom line for my young people when they are contemplating congregations, I'm going to advise them to find a place where the Church's books are used; where the Church's lectionary is followed; where the Service is conducted with decorum (whether simple or elaborate in its ceremony); and where the Sacrament is administered regularly and reverently. Above all, the Word of God must be preached clearly and consistently, the Law and the Gospel, the latter predominating.

(I should say that one of my young parishioners visited a college this past weekend, and so also a church in the same town. I was very pleased and most grateful to hear the congregation and its pastors described, because this appears to be a place where the above criteria are being met. Christ be praised.)

In response to Anan, Truth Questioner, and Sam, you've put your collective fingers on a bit of a pickle, actually. Each of you has made a good and legitimate point, but there's a little more to the matter than these things.

I don't have time, right now, for anything more than a brief answer, but let me give it a try.

The English term, "Divine Service," is intended as a translation of the German word, Gottesdienst. There is a certain ambiguity about this term, because it can be understood as a reference to the service God gives to His Church, and/or that service which the Church offers to God. In fact, it has been used to mean both of these things, which are not finally at odds with each other. Our Lutheran Confessions identify the chief worship that is offered to God as faith (and all that flows from faith), which begins and depends upon the hearing and receiving of the Gospel. So the Church's service to God hinges upon God's service to His Church. They go together.

Historically, though, Gottesdient was used primarily with reference to those services by which the Church gives honor to God. The term was used less technically and more practically; that is to say, it simply meant the services of the Church that were held throughout the week. Thus, it was used for the Service of the Holy Communion, as well as for the daily prayer offices, Matins and Vespers. The main Service on Sunday morning was distinguished by the term, Hauptgottesdienst, that is, "Chief Divine Service," and as Sam has rightly noted, this was almost always the Service of the Holy Communion.

At Emmaus, we are consistent in using the term, "Divine Service," with reference to the Holy Communion. Matins and Vespers and Evening Prayer, etc., are each called by its own nomenclature, and collectively described as "daily prayer offices." There is a benefit, I think, in using this differentiated terminology, and doing so consistently. But one does have to be careful about pushing that usage too hard and far.

Sarah is correct in pointing out that the Lord serves His people also through the proclamation of His Word. So, in this sense, too, a service that does not include the Holy Communion is a "Divine Service," so long as His Word is taught in its truth and purity. That's true of the daily prayer offices, as well, by which our days and hours are sanctified by the Word of God.

But again, it's important to understand that, historically, this terminology -- Gottesdienst or Divine Service -- was used for the Church's sacrifice of faith. The irony is that she "offers" that sacrifice, first and foremost, by receiving the gifts Christ freely gives. It is by and with and in such receiving, that faith then also loves both God and the neighbor.

Hopefully this makes sense and is a helpful response to the question.

Rev. Alan Kornacki, Jr. said...

Brother, this is brilliant. Not that you need me to tell you that, of course, but I wish I'd thought to write something like this. I'm going to link to this on my livejournal, as I see you've already given permission. Thank you!

Matt Carver (Matthaeus Glyptes) said...

If you have kids planning on going to Vanderbilt or other schools in middle Tennessee, I can recommend Redeemer LCMS in Bellevue.

Also I have a family letter dated to 1915, written in the south in the US, where the phrase "Gottesdienst mit Mahlzeit" is used, i.e. Divine service with (Holy) Supper, implying that in the early 20th c. America one could not always expect the communion on sundays where the divine service took place. This may have been due to a shortage of pastors. A visiting pastor is also mentioned in connection with this communion.